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One of the most controversial issues facing today's policy makers in the United States is the issue of bilingualism. The United States currently has a significant minority population whose first language is Spanish and not English. Complicating this fact further, many of these people are Puerto Rican in origin or family ethnicity. As such, they are United States citizens, but the majority of those living in Puerto Rico speak little or no English, and a significant number of those who have moved to the mainland have Spanish as their first language.
Residents of Puerto Rico have been American citizens since 1917 (Rubenstein, 2001). As such, they have the advantages of American citizenship from birth. In spite of this status, some report that as a group, Puerto Ricans are slower to assimilate into the larger, English-dominant American society (Rubenstein, 2001), which some feel sets them apart from groups of people who are true immigrants. Others feel that this sense of separation within U.S. citizenship is a serious problem for the United States (Rubenstein, 2001) while others see it as a cultural and linguistic difference that while important, does not represent any kind of real problem or crisis. These issues have spilled over to one of the most important policy decisions the United States regarding Puerto Rico -- whether or not to give that territory the status of a state. Some feel that if this is done, it would somehow make the Spanish language "co-equal" (Rubenstein, 2001) with English, in effect forcing the United States to an official stance of bilingualism.
Americans can see some effects of bilingualism as official policy by looking at the packaging of many things sold in the United States, because much of that packaging already contains two languages -- English and French. This is because Canada is officially bilingual, and anything sold in Canada must be labeled in both languages. First examination of this marketing practice suggests that recognizing the presence of two languages in a country may be good for business, as people speaking both languages can shop with ease.
Not surprisingly, at least some people from Spanish-first families would like to see the United States officially bilingual, but perhaps might have unrealistic expectations from this policy decision. When asked, "How would you feel if Spanish became a national language of the U.S. just like English?" A respondent said, "I would be mad happy! I think that if everyone knew both languages it would just be easier for everyone to have the same opportunities that just the white people do (Doherty, 2004)." However, becoming officially bilingual would not mean that people who spoke English first would also speak Spanish. It would simply mean that the use of both languages on signs and in other ways would become more widespread. It would not force those who speak English to learn Spanish any more than it would force those who speak Spanish to learn English fluently.
In fact, bilingualism isn't as simple a skill as many policy-makers and politicians seem to think. When a person speaks two languages fluently, he or she has to choose which language to use based on sometimes subtle clues (Becker, 1997). "Nikita," interviewed for this paper, explained how she chooses which language to use: "It depends who I'm with, at school it's all English because a lot of my friends there don't know any Spanish, here in the neighborhood, maybe a little Spanish sometimes, we can go back and forth you know? But at home, definitely all Spanish, my mom doesn't like us to speak English around her since she can't understand it. I guess it all depends on the situation or who I'm with (Doherty, 2004)." Nikita recognizes that circumstances sometimes demand English, and this would change if policy shifted to declare the United States a bilingual country. Nikita also reported her mother's great frustration when others cannot understand her, and how she often needs to translate for relatives (Doherty, 2004). Nikita is frustrated because she wants to see her mother accepted but recognizes the need to speak English (Doherty, 2004).
Several controversies surround the issue of whether the United States should be officially bilingual or not. Culturally, people from ethnic minorities often work hard to maintain their first language as a tie to their culture (1). This in turn…[continue]
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